I started the new year with a bang, at a gathering in the Washington home of a European diplomat. I was interested in how Europe was processing America’s political scene, including
refusal to accept the election outcome. I got an earful. The diplomat was rattled: America is democracy’s beacon, you’re letting the world down.
It was Jan. 1, my first trip to Washington since the pandemic started. In a note to the diplomat a few days later I threw in a caution: stay home on Jan. 6; the big Trump rally planned could bring trouble.
I knew this only because I pay attention to what’s going on, as adults do. I had no special information, no inside source, no heads-up on an encrypted app. I share this because I just read the report issued this week by two Senate committees on Capitol preparations for a possible insurrection. And the authorities weren’t paying attention.
No one was ready. The report underlined how stupid government agencies often are, how careless. They had intelligence systems and people who monitor the web. But there was a systemwide security failure, “critical breakdowns involving several federal agencies.” Agencies failed to warn of a potential for violence or to prepare. An arm of the Capitol Police knew of the danger in the weeks before Jan. 6 but failed to include the information in its assessments. Police leadership never developed a staffing plan for the joint session convened to count the electoral votes, and didn’t detail where officers would be located. After the insurrection they couldn’t provide documents showing where officers were as the attack began. Incident commanders couldn’t relay information to superiors because they were engaged with rioters. Frontline officers weren’t provided with proper equipment—helmets, armor, shields. Most defended the Capitol in their daily uniforms. Heavy gear was stored in a bus near the Capitol, but when a platoon tried to retrieve it, the bus was locked and nobody had a key. Capitol Police leadership bumbled calling in the National Guard and the Defense Department bumbled getting it there.
What a disaster. Reading it, after the indignation subsides, you realize: This sounds like a lot of America now. You put on the outfit and walk around playing a role. You’re doing your best but you haven’t been properly managed, trained or equipped, and you’re not sure exactly what to do. So you walk forward and do your best. This is true in many professions—politics, business, medicine. These institutions are interested in “public facing,” not “inner reality.” They’re all about marketing and communications. Managers are rewarded not for training carefully but for training quickly.
Anyway, Capitol Hill was asleep at the switch.
I want to say something about the meaning of 1/6 and why it is so important we set ourselves to knowing all that happened that day.
It’s not just “the past” and we can’t just “move on.” It’s a story that’s still happening.
People experienced it differently. Most of us were chilled and horrified as we saw the pictures of men in assault gear climbing the face of the Capitol, breaking in, swarming the Rotunda. It was a shock to see the Capitol breached.
But some weren’t horrified. They see the Capitol as already trashed through decades of bad governance, and now a stolen election. Jan. 6 was merely the physical expression of a longtime fact, that the vandals had already arrived and were wearing congressional pins.
To the horrified, the Capitol is a symbol and repository of our republic, our democracy. Those we choose to represent us do their work there. It may be a mess and a bit of a whorehouse but it’s always been a mess and a bit of a whorehouse, because it’s human. And yet greatness can erupt there, progress can be made, things improved.
It’s what as a nation we’ve got. It’s our only hope.
If you weren’t appalled by 1/6, then you have given up: Throw in the towel, democracy’s done, its over. Those who know it’s not done, not over, who won’t allow it to be done and over, also know that democracy needs friends right now.
Here is a way to be its friend.
The breaching of the Capitol happened because of a conspiracy theory: that the election was actually won by Mr. Trump but stolen from him by bad people. That theory hasn’t gone away, it’s growing and spreading. What might be called the Trump Underworld—the operatives, grifters and media figures around him—is pushing the theories harder than ever. It’s as if they think he’s not going to be a candidate in 2024 and they’d better make their money now, the window is closing.
This conspiracism is bad for the country: It leaves us more polarized and lessens our faith in our systems. It is bad for one of our two major parties: It leaves the GOP with an untreated cancer.
The only thing that can stop it is true facts independently developed and presented with respect—and receipts. How did 1/6 happen; who was behind it, paid for it, silently encouraged it, exploited it? Who didn’t care if people got hurt? Who wanted people hurt? This information is still gettable through deep dives into documentation—phone records, bank records, hotel records, text messages. It is gettable through sworn testimony.
Republicans senators recently shut down a bill to create a public 9/11-style commission investigating what happened and what led up to it. But they can’t stop, say, a House select committee with five Democrats, five Republicans, full staffing and full subpoena power.
Democrats haven’t been quick to launch a big and formal investigation. Maybe they’re afraid they themselves would be embarrassed by some revelations. Early on they figured Mr. Trump humiliated himself, and they should turn the page into the shining new Biden era. They should rethink this. A deep investigation would be a dramatic one, and it would help distract from recent bobbles.
a two-term GOP former House member and hearty supporter of a full investigation, notes the idea the election was stolen has morphed into “ ‘the November 3rd movement.’ ” She says in an interview: “I do think cutting out the sickness of conspiracy and QAnon is important. Trump-world is invested in it, they are duping good people who are writing $25 checks. You have smart people who believe in conspiracies now, and the ones who are smart are slower to figure out the truth than the ones who are not.”
She adds that “sometimes good policy is good politics.” Republican candidates need to be freed to develop policies that address people’s real issues again, not only their grievances. Politics needs to be serious again. Republican Trump stalwarts on Capitol Hill need to be confronted with the facts, pressed on them. “The future doesn’t have to be anti-Trump,” Ms. Comstock says, “it has to be non-Trump.”
She fears more violence and believes future attacks are possible: “Polarization has made the danger real. Threats are up 107% since the election. They wanted to hang
Capitol Police have told her they themselves want a broad investigation. “What happened to Back the Blue?” she asks.
Congress should take this seriously and do it sooner rather than later. “The longer you wait,” Ms. Comstock says, “the more records get away.”
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